Pardon me, My Paranoia Is Showing (to the NSA?)

I'm running away

I’m running away

If memory serves me correctly, I first sent and received an email message in 1993. If I had known I’d want to write about it this morning, I would have documented at the time it happened.

My late partner had moved to Dallas, but I was still in Boston.  He told me I could almost certainly use email at Bunker Hill Community College where I taught. The chair of the Office Services Department set up my first email account. I think at that time email was available almost exclusively to colleges and certain companies. I taught. My partner worked for Hewlett Packard.

I remember the incredulity with which I read my first message from him, replied, and received his reply. I don’t recall when I first searched the Internet search, but by that time my life had already been irreversibly changed. I bought my first computer in 1987 to write my PhD dissertation. Sometimes I have great fun telling my students the microchip was invented in my lifetime (Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments in 1957). At other times I am shocked and pained when I tell them.

I experience the same ambivalence when I tell them commercial airplane flight, television, talking movies, and many other markers of the genetics of 21st–century life came to be in my father’s lifetime. The atomic bomb; commercially available cars with power steering—Chrysler Imperial, 1951; MacDonald’s—1948; and Nike shoes—1964— all came into being in my lifetime.  There, I am officially an old fart telling kids how good their lives are compared with mine.

Back to email. The omnivorous cookie monster (are those tiny bits of information we leave behind in every electronic place we go still called “cookies”?) has been compiling data on me since 1993. Not just me—all of us, of course. I stopped worrying about “identity theft” and such things long ago. Anyone who has ever “logged on” has entered the world of electronic tracking. “I never,” a friend said in an email recently, “buy anything online because I want to protect my credit card information.” My answer was that she better close her credit card account. It’s too late to cover her email tracks (and I’m not sure she can delete her credit card information).

It’s no accident we use the word “log” to mean “to enter an electronic database.” A log is “any of various records. . . concerning a trip. . . with particulars of navigation. . . and other pertinent details.” “Logging on” is a record of pertinent details of one’s electronic navigation. Of course, we never really “log on” because it is impossible ever to “log off.” The log keeps perpetuating itself even when we are not using our computers.

The great sadness of our keeping track of everyone’s “pertinent details” is not that our 4th Amendment rights are being violated (which they most

Twilight of the shoe salesman?

Twilight of the shoe salesman?

certainly are). The sadness is that the very act of snooping on each other’s “logs”—yes, if you own stock in any corporation, you are snooping on my emails and tracking my internet use and vice versa—tears at the fabric of our society. It’s not terrorists who create a climate of fear and “terror.” We’ve done it to ourselves.

You wanna make money? You gotta be part of the great end-of-privacy society. That’s it.

I don’t know if you personally can get the records of my online purchase of a couple of “occasional” tables from Target, but if you own shares in Target—which your 401(k) is likely to— you are profiting from the record of my purchase. And if you think my purchase by credit card of a pair of Brooks running shoes yesterday at the exclusive Dallas-based family-owned Luke’s Locker store has gone unnoticed for further reference, you are—I assume—living in la-la-land. Even if the manager of the shoe department did notice my t-shirt and ask if I have seen all four Wagner Ring operas in Seattle or only Götterdämmerung.

Some years ago I saw in an FBI report attained by a Freedom of Information Act request the names of people (one of whom filed the request) who were at an anti-Viet Nam War demonstration in the early ‘70s. I attended the rally with the person named. I’ve wondered from time to time if my name might be in such a report. I don’t give a hoot. I never broke the law.

But if my friends’ names are in an FBI report from more than 20 years before I first used email and the internet, whose names do you suppose might be in NSA reports today? Someone whose email and phone records include many communications with Mufid Abdulqader? Am I being paranoid? Of course I am.
anti-Vietnam_protest

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